When Google (GOOG) bought PostRank, the last startup in which I was CEO, the company also offered me a fantastic job opportunity in California, which came with a pay increase, options and a significant retention bonus. It was pretty cool to think I could move to a beautiful part of the U.S., work for a global and massively successful company, and basically add a “badge of honor” to my resume. Who wouldn’t want to work for Google? But, in the end, it didn’t feel right in my gut. So, I declined, opting for the insecurity and unpredictability of embarking on a fourth startup instead.
This was not the rational decision, but it was the intuitive one—and the right one. My intuition was calling me to do what I know I’m best at—taking an idea in its early stages and building it into something great. I had been advising the original founders of e-learning company, Axonify, in my spare time and my intuition was telling me that the grains of their original idea could transform an area of the corporate enterprise that was ripe for disruption. People thought I was crazy. Corporate learning? Really? How boring can you get? But I just knew it was what I needed to do, and that the market was gigantic. I visualized blazing a trail and being a category leader if we did it right. And that totally excited me. It was risky, but that was also what excited me. I think I need a level of risk in my work to be happy—more risks than most people are willing to take.
Being an entrepreneur means you constantly have to make decisions. Sometimes the right choices are the riskiest and there is often no clear “right” or “wrong” choice to make. The right choice from a rational perspective could be the wrong one from an intuitive one, or what is right for your company may not be what is right for you. If I’ve learned anything from my entrepreneurial career, it is the importance of balancing intuition with fact when making tough decisions.
In my experience, markets have a more powerful impact on the fate of a startup than entrepreneurs anticipate. It is nice to believe that brilliant, innovative ideas arrive in a “eureka” moment and the rest falls into place. It is also nice to think that having the perfect product and strong technology is a recipe for success. However, neither of these notions is true.
The desire to build a successful company requires finding a large addressable market. It also requires a deep understanding of that market and its competitive landscape, as well as the dynamics and trends at play. A large but dying market is no better than a small one. Deciding which market to go after is one of the first and most fundamental decisions an entrepreneur makes, requiring insight from data as well as intuition.
Founders should commit themselves to rigorous research throughout the entire process of building a company. When deciding what to build, gather as much information as you possibly can and attack your assumptions and ideas from all angles. Then, keep this up as you make decisions about product, marketing, and strategy. As a leader, your job is to be generally correct everyday and make incremental progress, rather than being specifically wrong about big things and find yourself stuck in false assumptions.
I’ve seen many entrepreneurs who are so dedicated to an idea or invested in the product they’ve built that they are unwilling to listen to their gut and face harsh realities. A little paranoia can actually be a great asset because it keeps you hyper-tuned into the signs and signals of the market. However, the biggest challenge is not in gathering that information, but in interpreting it. Don’t undervalue your intuition’s capacity to synthesize the facts at hand to tell you which decision is the best one.
Ultimately, the next big thing is not just a brilliant idea. It is a company that tackles a large addressable market, responds to market trends, and grabs customers faster than anyone else. But it is also more than that. It is a company led by an individual or team who knows when to listen to their gut; who are driven by an intuitive sense that they are on to something big and can channel all the empirical, rational information into making their vision a reality.
Intuition is like the bird’s eye view that guides entrepreneurs through a maze, even when they have a map. It will help you make decisions faster and overcome self-doubt that stops startups in their tracks. Use facts to check your intuition, and intuition to check your facts.
Carol Leaman is CEO of Axonify.